Second hand t-shirts – there’s a lot more to them than you’d think

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If you visit stores in Stockholm that sell second hand or even ‘vintage’ shirts, it quickly becomes apparent that someone is bringing in american shirts by bulk. There is just no way that so many used american shirts would end up here by themselves and even the scenario where a Swedish person would go on a buying bonanza, hitting every thrift shop in California, seems unlikely (not to mention not very cost effective). However, that’s where I’ve stopped thinking about it in the past, who cares, right? Well, the other day I stumbled upon this episode of a podcast I’ve been listening to lately, Planet Money, and if – like me – you’re interested in t-shirts, I think you would find it pretty interesting:

Episode 502: The Afterlife Of A T-Shirt

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Not  only do you get an explanation to where these shirts come from and how they end up here, but you also find out what happens to all the other used shirts people give to charity – the ones that aren’t cool enough for european vintage stores. The episode starts with a story that actually sends shivers down my spine, and there’s a moment just after the 14 minute mark that made me whisper “nooooo!” to myself, but don’t worry – it’ll turn out ok in the end. Before you read anymore, listen to the episode, ok?

Great, you’re back. Good huh?

There’s a few thoughts I have on this:

* I bet you could find some really really cool shirts if you went looking in Africa and similar places. I remember a story about Swedish metalheads and die hard Iron Maiden fans Erik and Per Gustavsson (aka ‘bröderna hårdrock’ aka Hellbutcher and Tyrant) watching a documentary about some jungle tribe when they suddenly spotted a true collectors dream super rare Iron Maiden shirt that one of the tribe members were wearing. I doubt, however, that this method wold be financially viable.

* As someone mentions in the comments to the podcast, the thing that does not get mentioned in the episode, is what the flood of second hand clothing is doing to the domestic African clothes manufacturing industry. It’s not doing good things.

* It’s easy to laugh at the criteria the African vendors judge shirts by, it all seems kinda crazy. However, us Swedes are not much better. I see shirts for church bazaars and plumbing companies all the time when I look at what’s called vintage shirts here (and from what I’ve seen of the u.k, they’r not much better) – as long as it’s American, it’s cool. And band shirts… don’t get me started. I don’t know if it’s the Swedish vendors that can’t tell a true vintage band shirt from a cheap knockoff from 2004 or if they bet on customers not being able to tell, but for some reason they all seem to be going at the same price.

Anyway, Planet Money also did a five episode series on the global shirt economy – what goes into producing and exporting shirts. This may sound dull but I didn’t think it was. I may or may not write something about that series too, but there’s no real reason for you to wait for me to do so, right? You’ve got the link to their podcast archive above, go check it out for yourself.

Oh, and one more thing – and this is a big one. The Bat Mitzvah shirt mentioned in the story, the one with Betty Boop on it? The internet being the internet – the original owner of the shirt and the woman who’s Bat Mitzvah it was from – have now been identified and contacted. I love stuff like this!

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